“Hey! Who are you here with?”
“Where is your husband? Do you have a boyfriend?”
In 2013, I was asked these questions several times after I accidentally wandered into a more volatile area of Jerusalem. “Are you alone?” Some of the women were staring, and a few of the men were actually reaching out and trying to touch me.
It was probably the most uncomfortable I had ever felt while traveling solo.
I am American, and I live in The Netherlands where the women are almost aggressively emancipated. Sometimes, when I travel, I get so caught up in the beauty of where I am that I forget that I’m submerged in a different culture—and usually one I’m not accustomed to.
More importantly, I can forget that I’m alone. Comments and stares snap me back to a state of alertness.
This can happen anywhere; in my experience, it is not limited to more conservative cultures. It can happen on any continent at any time. For example, I was in Italy this past summer for a few weeks with a friend.
She and I were subject to catcalls and stares, but nothing really out of the ordinary; sadly, nothing different than most women experience during the course of their lives.
Last week, I was in France with a female friend and my young son. We were staying at a bed and breakfast in a neighborhood that I’m not familiar with as it was about 10 miles outside of the the city.
Pizza was the top choice for dinner after a long day in the car, so I made my way out to the local pizza place. While I was waiting for my pizza, I was approached by two young men who seemed polite enough, trying to make small talk.
I guess they were also waiting for their food.
As I got up to collect my order and leave, I bid them a good evening. They both stood up and started to walk with me toward the door, asked my name, where I was staying and what was I doing out so late by myself.
My eyes darted over to the man behind the counter who was watching this go down, and he gave me a look that somehow reassured me that he wouldn’t let them walk out behind me. I watched my back, however, the entire walk back to the B&B.
Staying safe while traveling abroad is very important for women. They need to be aware of their surroundings and to exercise caution while traveling. These tips may seem like common sense to some, but adhering to them could save your life.
1. Walk in like you own the place
Whether it’s a bar, restaurant or museum, a subway or a train, walk in with your head high—as if you’ve been there a million times before; as if you’re a local.
2. Stay in touch via social media
Whenever I travel, I buy a travel package from my mobile phone provider. This gives me the ability to call and update my social media accounts when there is no wifi available.
Also, learn the local emergency numbers and store them on your phone.
3. Be vigilant when taking public transportation
Always sit in train/subway cars that have other people in them. When you take a taxi, take a photo of the license plate and send it to someone you’re in regular contact with during your travels.
Another thing I sometimes do is pretend to be on the phone when I get into the cab, and I’ll say something like, “Ok sweetie! Just jumped in a cab. See you in a few minutes!”
4. Trust your instincts
If you feel threatened in any way, make sure that people around you know it. Never feel embarrassed to talk to people around you, especially if you’re in an uncomfortable situation.
Seek out another woman or a family to talk to or to ask for help.
5. Don’t tell anyone that you’re traveling alone
If you’re staying at a hostel or something with 30 other roommates, of course they’ll know you’re alone. But, when you’re out and about and someone, male or female, casually asks you the same question, never confess that you’re traveling solo.
6. If possible, bring emergency contraception
In a lot of countries, emergency contraception isn’t available, and the threat of sexual assault is very real. I always travel with Plan B.
7. Never be afraid to say no
My first instinct is always to be polite, and this has lead to a few uncomfortable situations abroad. When in doubt, or if you feel strange about the direction a conversation is taking, shut the interaction down immediately.
Do not be afraid of being perceived as rude; it’s not worth your life.
8. Don’t be a hero
If someone tries to rob you, do not resist; hand over whatever they ask for. This is true whenever or wherever you are, even in a place like New York City with a group of friends.
In 2005, an actress and playwright from Minnesota was held up at gunpoint on the Lower East Side. Perhaps she felt safe because she was with a group. When the assailants demanded their valuables, she challenged one of them and said, “What are you going to do now, shoot us?”
That’s exactly what one of them did. He shot her in the face, in front of her friends on the street. She died on the sidewalk. When someone wants your money or your phone, give it to them; it can be replaced.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where gender inequality is just a fact of life. Sometimes I resent that women have to follow different rules than men while traveling, but we do.
So, take heed, be vigilant, and take care to mitigate the chances that you are in a difficult or dangerous situation. And, always, be armed with information about the local culture.